When Freedom is a Prison: Betsy DeVos and the Conservative Attack on Higher Education

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos devoted only a paragraph of her speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference this past week to higher education. But it spoke volumes.

DeVos did not use this forum to address any of the serious problems facing higher education, many of which stem from a decrease in public support for universities. Rather, she used it to attack those on the front lines of higher education.

“The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans,” she implored the audience, “tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think.” This, she concluded, amounted to college faculty “silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom [they] disagree.”

This, of course, is an old refrain in conservative circles, one that has been given new life in our current political climate. Conservative state legislators in two states, for example, recently proposed legislation doing away with tenure, while another has proposed a political test for new faculty hires, one whose practical impacts would be for only Republicans to be hired for the foreseeable future. One conservative group even recently began a “watch list” of “liberal” professors who should be targeted for removal for “promot[ing] anti-American values and advanc[ing] leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

Talk about trying to silence people with whom they disagree.

(It is notable that DeVos’ speech took place a day before the Trump administration excluded journalists from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CNN, and other news outlets from a press briefing based on them having reported things the administration did not like, while granting press privileges to a conservative blog primarily known for making up and spreading false rumors about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.)

So why are college professors, if not the entire higher education system, such a target for conservatives?

Answering that question requires us to delve into what it means to be “conservative” in today’s America. That is a perilous endeavor given how many perspectives are collapsed into this thing we call “conservatism” and the intricate web of often contradictory positions self-proclaimed “conservatives” support. At its core, though, conservatism is about a respect for traditional forms of authority, including family, religion, and the state.

With that, we can begin to see the obvious tension between conservatism and higher education. Whereas conservatism’s goal is for people to respect tradition, the goal of the university (at least in theory) is to pursue and to spread knowledge, even where it conflicts with certain traditional sources of authority. It is to teach students to think critically about all aspects of their lives and to challenge deeply-held assumptions they might hold, including (but not limited to) those instilled in them by their family, their religious leaders, or their state.

DeVos and her conservative, billionaire friends like to talk as though they are the vanguards of freedom. To be sure, the supposed “free market” the American state has promoted—perversely using Christian theology to back it—has given DeVos and her friends a great amount of freedom. This apparently includes the freedom to purchase a spot in the president’s cabinet. Social hierarchies are so liberating! (So long as you’re on the top.)

Conservatives talk about “freedom” even when advocating positions that will deny millions from having access to basic health care services and will condemn thousands per year to death, as Paul Ryan did last week. They do so even when advocating extreme “school choice” programs that have already proven to be devastating both for choice and for providing an adequate education.

So we should not be surprised that DeVos characterized her attack on academic freedom as somehow protecting the freedoms protected by our First Amendment. Apparently, to DeVos and many other conservatives, students should be “free” to pursue a degree without having their viewpoints challenged with new ideas or with facts that might not conform to their narrow worldviews.

To DeVos, ignorance is freedom. This is dangerous, and it indeed runs counter to a basic premise of our public education system, namely that education is essential to true freedom—that it is a form of liberation from the shackles of ignorance. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote in support of free speech, “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

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